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Apple's tablet and the future of literature

Written by son of rambow on Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Technology is not the sworn enemy of literature. Still, the collision of technology and literature in this case may well prove explosive.

Literature has always relied on technology. We wouldn't have the Dead Sea Scrolls had the ancients failed to invent papyrus, just as we wouldn't have "The Da Vinci Code" if Gutenberg hadn't come out with movable type.

Technology has also abetted literature by enabling the wealth and leisure that fueled the rise of the popular press -- and allowed for such luxuries as a class of professional writers and a large campus establishment devoted to the literary arts.

It is important to bear in mind that technology is not the sworn enemy of literature as Apple prepares (according to frantic rumor) to unveil its much-anticipated new tablet computer on Jan. 27. Still, the collision of technology and literature in this case may well prove explosive.

A well-designed Apple tablet, embedded in the right business model, has the potential to blow up the book business as we know it, ultimately upending the whole rickety edifice of publishers, booksellers and agents, much as the digital revolution (and Apple) have done to the music business.

It's been clear for a while, of course, that the future of text is digital. And an Apple tablet wouldn't be the first of its kind. Amazon's Kindle is almost synonymous with dedicated electronic readers, and others have appeared recently as well.

But these devices are relatively primitive. By comparison, the iPhone and its iPod Touch sibling are already remarkably good reading machines while doing so much more as well. Equipped with a 10-inch screen and sold for the right price, the formidable tablet will force competitors to ramp up their game.

These new tablets will give ink on paper a powerful nudge into history's wastebasket, helping to remake not just books but newspapers, magazines and other material we've traditionally consumed in print.

The result will be a seismic change in the literary culture. Ubiquitous tablets will make books cheaper and more readily available, even as physical bookstores follow Tower Records into oblivion. Lending libraries will have to figure out a new mission; the time is not far off when the typical 10-year-old will have the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in her backpack.

Tablets will also change the nature of books. The reliably fixed quality of ink on paper is being replaced by the protean nature of bytes, introducing an element of impermanence into the written record of civilization, as some scholars have already complained. [source]

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